So I’m just back from a glorious week in the ski resort of Courmayeur, high in the Italian Alps, where I was President of the film jury at the Courmayeur In Noir film and book festival. Sounds grand, “President”, but actually (as the pic shows) the reason I got voted President is because I was the only juror who didn’t have a beard…

5 Just Men
5 Just Men (and translator)

The others were film director Mike Hodges (one of my all-time heroes, more of whom in a moment), Italian rock and re-mixer superstar Boosta (and a really, really nice guy) and film directing brothers Marco and Antonio Maretti (also wonderful people).

The week was a total blast – we were put up in a glorious hotel, all expenses paid, and had to watch 2 movies a day, eat three stunning meals a day and drink all the fine quality wines we could force down our gullets. This was work??? As they say – a tough job, but someone had to do it… The only really hard part was staying awake during some of the films – because of our alcohol intake (!) not because they were boring – apart from the awful Spanish film, Salvador, which really was the pits, along with the mind-bogglingly dull Polish film, Palimpsest, which prompted Mike Hodges to whisper into my ear, half way through, “I can understand why so many Poles become plumbers.” (whatever happened to all those wonderful Polish film makers of a decade or two back????)

Word of warning to the team behind Salvador: If you want to get a film jury on your side, please obey the following basic rules of common sense and courtesy :

– It is really not smart to start your film at 11 o’clock at night having advertised it to start at 10pm. It is even less smart to have the film’s director, who has the personality of discarded orange peel, talk for the best part of that hour in Spanish, detailing what we are going to see in every frame of the film and giving the entire story and ending away – or rather, would have done if Mike Hodges and I could have understood, but he only bothered having an Italian translator, even though he must have known that two of the five jurors sitting in front of him spoke neither language.

– It is even less smart to have a film start at 11 o’clock at night that is going to run for 138 minutes entirely in Spanish, with only Italian subtitles, when two of the five people going to vote for it speak neither language.

– If you are going to make a film, for God’s sake make something original. This turgid political thriller has been made a thousand times before, and better every time. Even when viewed in other languages I don’t speak.

For me the undoubted movie highlights of the week were a wonderful, dark and edgy Icelandic film called Children, directed by Ragnar Bragason – this was a stunner, with some truly memorable performances, and won the Jury Prize (although not according to the Festival’s website, which has done some post-event tinkering with our verdicts – and we wonder why…. ) a beautiful film about a young pianist, La Tourneuse De Pages, and Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog, to which we awarded the prize of Best Film – a very powerful and convincing film based on a true story of an abduction that goes wrong and turns to murder.

We also saw Last King Of Scotland which I was ambivalent about. Forest Whitaker’s performance is awesome, but the film irritated me because it bore very scant relationship to the facts as I know them about Idi Amin and his entourage. I so hate films, like Braveheart, that purport to be historically accurate and which aren’t. They distort history and that is a very dangerous thing to do.

One absolutely highlight for me was the totally outrageous French comedy film, OSS 117, a wonderfully cast spoof on Bond and very, very funny, and totally politically incorrect – for which I loved it all the more. In fact it is so politically incorrect, with the hero, Jean Dujardin – who has to be destined for superstardom. He has the suave looks of a young Sean Connery, the bumbling insensitivity of Peter Seller as Clouseau and the guileless innocence of Chevy Chase. I nearly fell out of my (very uncomfortable) seat with laughter when this incompetent secret agent, in a Muslim country for the first time in his life, furious at being woken at dawn by the muezzin, climbs up a minaret and silences him! Tickets to the world premiere in Baghdad anyone?????

But my biggest highlights were meeting not one but two of my heroes. The first was Mike Hodges, who directed the original Get Carter, a landmark film that in my view changed the face of the modern cinematic thriller – and more recently he directed Clive Owen in the wonderful Croupier. And the second was Elmore Leonard. The man!!

PJ and Mike Hodges
PJ and Mike Hodges

The three of us had dinner together, accompanied also by the very amiable Adrian Wootton who runs Film London. Elmore was on sparkling form. Undoubtedly the biggest selling crime writer on the planet, and an extraordinary guy to boot – 81 years old and sharp as a tack, and he still smokes, 15 a day, needing them to write, he told me, puffing away with me on a Virginia Slim menthol light after we sneaked out of the restaurant together for a quick smoke with, like two schoolkids behind the bike sheds…

I told him that whilst I loved Get Shorty, when I recently re-read it I couldn’t get John Travolta out of my mind as Chili Pepper. Elmore nodded sagely then confessed, ‘You know, I have another problem with John Travolta. I can never think of anything to say to him!”

Afterwards was when the wheels fell off. An elderly friend of mine who was a former Pan Am pilot (he started off flying Pan Am out of Berlin in the years after WW2 when the Germans were not allowed their own airline) once told me his theory that the people who are most likely to screw up are usually those at the top of their professions. He went on to warn me that if I ever found myself on a plane that was to be flown by the senior captain of the airline, to get off at once. More often than not it is the senior officers who cause the crashes – from complacency. This was true of the world’s worst air disaster ever, he told me, when in 1977 in Tenerife a KLM 747 collided with a Pan Am 747 on the runway, killing 583 people. It was entirely the fault of the Pan Am pilot, one of their most experienced officers, who had become impatient after waiting several hours for fog to lift. He had radioed the tower asking if it was now OK to go and the tower replied no. But there was radio interference and, despite the co-pilot arguing for caution, he misheard it as a “yes” and proceeded, taxiing into the path of a KLM plane that was taking off.

Complacency is also true in the medical profession. I knew a senior orthopaedic surgeon in the UK who once amputated the wrong leg of a man – again from complacency. So was it any surprise that Mike Hodges, my great director hero, a true giant and veteran of his profession, should be incapable of performing the simple task of taking a photograph????

All he had to do was take a photograph of me and Elmore Leonard. Could he do it? Could he hell!!!!

PJ and Elmore by Mike Hodges

As the photograph shows, the one Mike took of me and Elmore simply showed me and Mike Hodges’s finger!!! It took a man who knows how to organize things, Adrian Wootton, to eventually master my new phone camera (crap quality, but handy…) and get the job done. And poor Elmore, stood with the patience of a saint, posing with me for a good fifteen minutes!

PJ and Elmore by Andrew Wootton
PJ and Elmore by Andrew Wootton